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Boris Johnson is facing his biggest Tory rebellion yet over Covid Plan B restrictions


“It is unethical and also, at practical level, it wouldn’t work”. Sajid Javid’s double dismissal this morning of the idea of compulsory Covid vaccinations was certainly forthright.

To some, it sounded like a self-confident Health Secretary giving both barrels to a Prime Minister who had seemed to float the idea of forcing everyone to get a jab.

In a characteristic bit of improvisation in his Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, Boris Johnson had hinted it may be time for the UK to at least start having a debate about the issue.

If vaccine boosters are shown to be capable of “holding” the Omicron variant, the PM said, then “there is going to come a point” when “we are going to have to have a conversation about ways in which we deal with this pandemic”.

“I don’t think we can keep going indefinitely with non-pharmaceutical interventions…restrictions on people’s way of life, just because a substantial proportion of the population still sadly has not got vaccinated,” Johnson added.

Although Javid is pushing ahead with plans to make the Covid jab a condition of employment for all frontline staff in the NHS next spring, the much broader notion of compulsory vaccinations for the general population would be a whole new level of state intervention.

Doctors’ groups believe compulsion is counter-productive, as it effectively politicises a medical procedure in a way that makes the sceptical even more suspicious. Anti-vaxx demonstrations in Europe show how unease can easily tip into violence.

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There’s certainly unease in Austria, which will be the first country in the EU to go ahead with compulsion in February after its government despaired of low vaccination rates. It plans to fine people who don’t get jabbed, but has had to back off plans to threaten its citizens with jail for repeated refusals.

Downing Street certainly seemed at pains to defuse the compulsory jabs speculation. The PM’s official spokesman said he was “making a broader point on the intention to keep developing further mitigations against coronavirus and any subsequent mutations”, citing antiviral drugs.

In fact, some Johnson allies interpreted his remarks not as a green light for general vaccine compulsion but as a signal that he really wouldn’t ever implement another lockdown, even if it meant high levels of deaths among the unvaccinated.

If vaccines were shown to work, then the unjabbed had only themselves to blame, one Tory source said. And the rest of society should not be forced to face repeated restrictions because of the actions of a minority.

That would fit with Johnson’s long-held belief that he should react to health and safety crises like the Mayor in Jaws, who kept the beaches open for “the majority” despite some fatal shark attacks to a minority.

Former adviser Dominic Cummings has claimed the PM regretted not showing such sangfroid early in the pandemic, and it would explain his reluctance to even implement the latest “Plan B” of new restrictions this winter.

Johnson’s reluctance to go down the forced jabs route is also highlighted by the key tweak to Covid “certification” that will be required for access to nightclubs and large events. Under the amended plans, a negative lateral flow test would be accepted as an alternative to a full vaccine record.

The broadening of such Covid passes, which are already used by the Welsh government and the Scottish government, will make it easier for Labour to back them in the crunch vote to approve them for England in Parliament next week.

But Tory MPs sound much less prepared to accept even that concession. For them, the suite of measures unveiled this week are an affront to liberty, a deliberate and panicked attempt to distract from the Christmas Party row, and mired in confusion.

To add to the jitters, a new Survation opinion poll put Labour on 40 per cent and the Conservatives on 34 per cent.

There was a mix of disbelief and ridicule among backbenchers today as they shared via WhatsApp the latest line from No.10 that the “Plan B” mask-wearing exemptions would allow singing in church, singing during a musical, and maybe even singing in supermarkets. Downing Street clarified a “reasonable excuse” would be needed to croon in your local Tesco.

Many Tory MPs want their leader to reclaim the spirit of the mayor of Jaws. One pointed out to me that defying “doomsters” to keep the economy open is a key to re-election: “Don’t forget the real moral of the story: the Mayor of Jaws is still the Mayor in Jaws 2.”

Yet after five straight weeks of blunders by Johnson ever since the Owen Paterson affair, the mood is so volatile among some Conservative backbenchers that he could next week face his biggest rebellion since his 2019 general election victory.

And it’s that twin attack line that Javid used about compulsory Covid jabs – “unethical” and “impractical” – that seems to sum up their current main concerns about the PM’s character.

The Paterson sleaze row, the double-standards over the No.10 Christmas party and the shifting story of donations for the Downing Street flat refurbishment, all have fuelled the image of Johnson as a moral vacuum.

But his handling of each controversy, on top of his handling of Covid, also confirm to some critics that at a practical level his administration isn’t working.

It won’t just be a newborn baby that keeps Boris Johnson up at night this weekend. If dozens of Tory backbenchers really do rebel over Covid “Plan B” next week, Johnson will have to rely on Labour votes to carry the day. jaw

That would be unchartered territory for him, his party, and the country.



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